County will wait out MCPA on individual sewer rules
Although mandated to adopt new rules governing on-site sewer treatment systems by Feb. 4, Beltrami County commissioners plan to let that date slide.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revised its rules, and counties must adopt the changes by Feb. 4. The changes, however, will cost money and require counties to hire more staff, which they are bucking.
But the Legislature mandated MPCA to be done with its rules revisions by Feb. 4, but it is not.
"It is bizarre that we are required to adopt revised rules that have not been implemented," Commissioner Joe Vene said Tuesday, when Environmental Services Director Bill Patnaude presented the issue to commissioners.
Two counties -- Polk and Roseau -- have gone on record that they oppose the rules and will not adopt them.
"MPCA is listening and revising its revisions," Commissioner Jim Lucachick said. "But they still want us to adopt them by Feb. 4. They have a gun to our head."
Counties not adopting the rules by Feb. 4 could face penalties, such as the loss of state funds that flow to counties for environmental services in water quality, solid waste grants, recycling grants, etc.
The county is ready to go - a revised Beltrami County Subsurface Sewage Treatment System Ordinance No. 32 has been green-lighted by MPCA and needs only three hearings and adoption by the County Board, Patnaude said.
Among many problems, he said, is a new requirement that pressurized systems be installed in all sand soils. That's impossible in northern Minnesota, he added.
"Even building codes have zones," agreed Lucachick. "We need the MPCA to understand that pressurized systems in sand beds at 39-below is not going to work."
"With the new mandate, the installation cost for homeowners becomes significantly increased because of the addition of a pump tank and pump," said Patnaude. "Counties have demanded that more research be done by the University of Minnesota Extension Service to demonstrate if there is really the need for all systems to be pressurized in sandy soils."
Lucachick, an architect, said installation of such systems could add $20,000 to home costs. "Those who buy homes to renovate them to sell who have to put this in at $20,000 will find it not worth it."
Another requirement, Patnaude said, would have counties conduct on-site visits to certify soil classifications. Since mid-2004, the county has accepted certifications by private licensed firms rather than making site visits.
If the new rule were in effect for 2009, the county would have had to make 162 site visits, Patnaude said, mandating more staff to do so. Since 1999, there have been 2,445 systems installed in Beltrami County, including a high of 333 in 2004, the last time the county revised its ordinance.
"At any given time, adding any new mandates to a local unit of government is going to be met with opposition and a large burden upon the mandating entity to justify such a measure," Polk County Environmental Services Administrator Jon Steiner states in a letter to Pollution Control Commissioner Paul Egers that is accompanied by the Polk County Board resolution.
"However, in the current economic environment we all find ourselves trying to survive ... adding a new mandate should only be done in extreme circumstances where the failure to do so would result in irreparable harm or a threat to the public health and safety," he wrote. "The new septic system rules do not meet any such standard."
The Roseau County Board resolution states that "the county encourages the state to increase its protection of water quality and the environment through a more aggressive, effective and efficient enforcement of the existing rules rather than exacerbating the problem through the creation of more complex and unenforceable rules."
Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks argued that the county should go the route of Polk and Roseau and go on record that the county will not adopt the rules. But commissioners instead decided to wait out the MPCA, go past the Feb. 4 deadline and see what happens.
"I want to see what other counties are doing," Fairbanks said. "I'm afraid if they (MPCA) think we will change things, they will change them."
However, county backlash at the proposed rule changes may cause revisions counties can accept, other commissioners said.
"The negative way would be to pass resolutions like those two counties, and the positive way is to open a dialogue," Lucachick said.
"I'm not sure we need to take an adversarial approach," said County Administrator Tony Murphy. "The MPCA hasn't met its deadline to finish the rules. They are the people really out of compliance to meet the legislative deadline. I think we can just wait and see."
The critical time will come in April or May, when people want to know what the rules are to install septic systems, he added.
Patnaude, however, said he wants to send the draft county ordinance revisions out to townships and to be made public for input and comments.
"Beltrami County has always been sensitive to protecting our environment," Vene said.
Patnaude said he would issue another update to commissioners at their Jan. 19 meeting.